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Leblanc v. Mathena

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

July 1, 2015

DENNIS LeBLANC, Petitioner,
v.
RANDALL MATHENA, Chief Warden, Red Onion State Prison, Pound, Virginia, and COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, Respondents.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ARENDA L. WRIGHT ALLEN, District Judge.

Sentencing a child to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, means denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of the child, the child will remain in prison for the rest of his or her days.

See Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 70 (2010).

OVERVIEW

Before the Court is a Petition from Dennis LeBlanc ("Petitioner" or "Mr. LeBlanc") for a Writ of Habeas Corpus filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 1), and a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 17) advanced by Respondents Randall Mathena and the Commonwealth of Virginia (collectively, "Respondents"). Mr. LeBlanc argues that his sentence of two life terms without the possibility of parole for the nonhomicide offenses he committed as a juvenile is contrary to, and an unreasonable application of, federal law as established by the United States Supreme Court's holding in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). For the following reasons, this Court agrees. Respondent's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 17) is DENIED, and Mr. LeBlanc's Petition (ECF No. 1) is GRANTED.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Mr. LeBlanc was convicted by a Virginia state court of rape and abduction with intent to defile. Mr. LeBlanc was sixteen years old when he committed these offenses. Because Mr. LeBlanc committed these offenses in 1999, he is ineligible for parole. VA. CODE ANN. § 53.1-165.1 (2014) ("Any person sentenced to a term of incarceration for a felony offense committed on or after January 1, 1995, shall not be eligible for parole upon that offense.").

On May 11, 2011, following the Supreme Court's ruling in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), Mr. LeBlanc moved to vacate his sentences in Virginia state trial court, arguing that because he was sixteen years old at the time of the offense and did not commit a homicide, Graham renders his sentence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Graham, the Supreme Court held that "[t]he Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide." 560 U.S. at 82; see also Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2465 (2012) (emphasis added) (recognizing that the Graham decision imposed a " flat ban on life without parole" for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses).

After conducting an evidentiary hearing on August 9, 2011, the Virginia trial court denied relief to Mr. LeBlanc, concluding that Virginia's Geriatric Release Provision constituted "an appropriate mechanism" that rendered his sentence of two life terms without the possibility of parole an "appropriate sentence" under Graham. [1] Aug. 9, 2011 Hr'g Tr. at 25:14-19. In so concluding, the state trial court referenced a Virginia Supreme Court decision- Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011)-that held that Virginia's Geriatric Release Provision constituted a meaningful opportunity to obtain release for juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide, and that, therefore, sentences of life without parole for these offenders can be construed as compliant with the dictates of Graham. 704 S.E.2d at 402 (refusing to vacate a sentence of three life terms plus a term of years for nonhomicide offenses that the defendant committed as a juvenile because of Virginia's Geriatric Release Provision). The trial court held that, under Angel, the sentence Mr. LeBlanc received was appropriate and not "void ab initio."[2] Aug. 9, 2011 Hr'g Tr. at 25:23-24.

In justifying Mr. LeBlanc's sentence of life without the possibility of parole as "appropriate, " the trial court noted that:

[b]efore [Mr. LeBlanc] came to me, he had been convicted of carjacking, abduction, robbery, use of a firearm in commission of a felony... and all those were pending or had been resolved. This case was not only sad but it was tragic for the woman who was raped because, as I said, she was just an elderly lady walking down a path and the defendant raped her and abducted her.... [T]he court at the time prior to sentencing had a psychosexual evaluation done, and basically the psychologist said he was a sociopath in so many words. So based on the totality of that, the court gave him a life sentence.... I know it's not a pleasant thing to get a life sentence, but the last thing the defendant told me was, Fuck you, quote/unquote twice.... [T]hat was what I was dealing with then.... [A]nd, as I said, by the time the court got him [for sentencing], he was nineteen years old or twenty.

Aug. 9, 2011 Hr'g Tr. at 23:14-24:18.

Mr. LeBlanc appealed the decision of the trial court to the Virginia Supreme Court. On April 13, 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court summarily found no reversible error in the trial court's decision.

The Virginia Supreme Court's ruling read in its entirety:

Upon review of the record of this case and consideration of the argument submitted in support of the granting of an appeal, the Court is of opinion there is no reversible error in the judgment complained of. Accordingly, the Court refuses the petition for appeal.

Dennis LeBlanc v. Commonwealth, Record No. 111985, Circuit Court No. CR02-1515 (Va. Apr. 13, 2012).

The Supreme Court of Virginia also denied Mr. LeBlanc's timely petition for rehearing on June 15, 2012. On June 19, 2012, Mr. LeBlanc filed the instant Petition, and the matter was referred for disposition to a United States Magistrate Judge. In a Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 24), the Magistrate Judge recommended granting Respondents' Motion to Dismiss and denying the Petition and dismissing it with prejudice.

In reviewing a Report and Recommendation, this Court "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations" made by the Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (2009); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). To the extent a party makes specific and timely written objections to a Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations, this Court must review de novo "those portions of the report... to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); accord Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

The parties were advised of their right to file written objections to the Report and Recommendation. On August 1, 2013, the Court received objections from Mr. LeBlanc. Respondents declined to respond to these objections and filed no objections of their own. The Court ordered supplemental briefing on the matter. All briefing, the recommendations of the Magistrate Judge, and the entire record have been considered carefully.

STANDARDS OF LAW

I. MOTION TO DISMISS

"In proceedings under § 2254, the familiar standards in Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to the government's motion to dismiss." Walker v. Kelly, 589 F.3d 127, 138 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Brooks v. Clarke, No. 3:15-CV-13, 2015 WL 1737993, at *3 (E.D. Va. Apr. 16, 2015) (employing the Rule 12(b)(6) standard to a motion to dismiss a habeas petition). "Thus, a motion to dismiss a § 2254 petition under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the petition, requiring the federal habeas court to assume all facts pleaded by the § 2254 petitioner to be true.'"[3] Walker, 589 F.3d at 139 (citation omitted).

"In assessing whether the § 2254 petition states a claim for relief, the district court must consider "the face of the petition and any attached exhibits." Id. (citation omitted). A court may consider material from the record of the state habeas proceeding, including affidavits and evidence presented at trial, "without having to convert the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to one for summary judgment under Rule 56(b)." Id. "Moreover, a federal court may consider matters of public record such as documents from prior state court proceedings in conjunction with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion." Id.

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual information "to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Brooks, 2015 WL 1737993, at *4 (quoting Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief [is]... a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663-64 (2009)). In evaluating a Motion to Dismiss, the Court must determine whether the petitioner "came forward with sufficient evidence to survive the Commonwealth's dispositive motion [to dismiss] and advance his claim for a merits determination." Walker, 589 F.3d at 139.

II. PETITION FOR HABEAS RELIEF

A. Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") governs this Court's consideration of a state prisoner's petition for writ of habeas corpus. Richardson v. Branker, 668 F.3d 128, 138 (4th Cir. 2012). The AEDPA standard mandates that a writ of habeas corpus "shall not be granted" for any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in a state court proceeding unless the state court's adjudication was: (1) "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States"; or (2) "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) (2015). "A state-court decision is contrary to [the Supreme Court's] clearly established precedents if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases, or if it confronts a set of facts that is materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme Court] but reaches a different result." Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005).

Under the fundamental notions of state sovereignty, the "AEDPA restricts [the] intrusion of state sovereignty by limiting the federal courts' power to issue a writ to exceptional circumstances, thereby helping to ensure that state proceedings are the central process, not just a preliminary step for a later federal habeas proceeding." Richardson, 668 F.3d at 138. This Court is "mindful that state courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions, ' that habeas corpus proceedings are a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal, ' and that a federal court may only issue the writ if there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [the Supreme Court's] precedents.'" Id. at 132 (alteration in original) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102-03 (2011)).

"In reviewing a state court's ruling on postconviction relief, we are mindful that a determination on a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed correct, ' and the burden is on the petitioner to rebut this presumption by clear and convincing evidence.'" Lee v. Clarke, 781 F.3d 114, 122 (4th Cir. 2015), as amended (Apr. 15, 2015) (quoting Tucker v. Ozmint, 350 F.3d 433, 439 (4th Cir. 2003)). The AEDPA "demands that state court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt, " and it is error for a federal court to conduct de novo review of habeas claims that were adjudicated on the merits by a state court. Richardson, 668 F.3d at 140-41. However, "[e]ven in the context of federal habeas, deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review, and does not by definition preclude relief." Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433, 2015 WL 2473376, at *6 (U.S. June 18, 2015) (alteration in original). The Supreme Court has emphasized that:

a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or, as here, could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are ...

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